Football captain Sunil Chhetri believes the road to India’s campaign in AFC Asian Cup will not be easy despite not having difficult opponents like Australia, Japan, Korea, Iran or Iraq in their group even as he conceded that teams like Bahrain, Thailand and UAE will pose a tough challenge to them.

The Indian team will compete in Group A alongside hosts United Arab Emirates (UAE), Thailand and Bahrain and none of the Asian giants—Australia, Japan, Korea, Iraq, Iran—are present in the group.

“If you say it can be easier because we are doing well that can be a valid point. But we can’t say it is UAE, Thailand and Bahrain, and so it is easier. Only because we are not facing Australia and South Korea, people think it’s going to be easy. It is not,” Chhetri said on the sidelines of an event organised by KIA motors on Sunday.

The 33-year-old skipper disagreed that India are facing weaker sides compared to 2011, saying teams like Thailand is the “most improved side” as they went on beating Australia in their own soil.

“You must keep in mind that the UAE are the host team and playing the home side is always difficult. Thailand are a highly improved team and have good preparations. Even the teams like Australia and Japan are finding it hard to beat Thailand,” he said.

“Last time we played a 2-2 draw against Thailand six-seven years back and they are competing with the best in the Asia. They are a very good side. The more important thing for us is how we are going to prepare,” Chhetri said.

Concerned about India’s poor show outside the country, the Bengaluru FC captain said the team needs to better its away record and play more international matches against good opponents if it is to do well in the upcoming tournament.

“I am really worried about winning games outside our country. Our home record has always been very good. Away, we have really struggled. I hope we get more away games so that we can test ourselves, and also against better opponents,” he said.

India will kick-start their Asian Cup campaign against Thailand on 6 January. UAE will be hosting the 5 January to 1 February event next year. The last edition of the mega event saw India crashing out of the group stage without winning a single match.

Chhetri said the team require the best of preparations to make it count despite having an impressive run in the qualifying round of Asian Cup during which India had a 13-match unbeaten run. He added that he doesn’t pay much heed to the ranking system as it’s not a reflection of how good a team is. India’s recent performance improved its tally in the FIFA rankings, placing them at 97 after a long time.

“I am really happy with the performance we have put but the stage we are talking about is different. I don’t think it matters what we did before and I have never taken ranking seriously. I am happy that we are inside 100 but the way ranking works is very tricky. I don’t give too much importance to it,” he said.

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